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Through players' eyes: AAU basketball - confronting its reputation

Mallory Brake drives baseline against Cretin-Derham Hall early on during Hastings' season. Photo courtesy of Beck Photography 1 / 4
Sawyer Levos rises up for the jumper and absorbs the contact from his defender. Alec Hamilton / RiverTown Multimedia 2 / 4
Parker Nielsen brings the ball up the court during the WIAA Division 3 state championship game against Xavier. Jalen Knuteson / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 4
Courtney Brown Jr. drives to the basket during East Ridge's season opener against Chanhassen. Blaze Fugina / RiverTown Multimedia 4 / 4

AAU basketball has exploded in popularity and with the positives come the negatives. Its reputation is far from sterling and has just as many detractors as supporters. Kobe Bryant believes it is bad for basketball, claiming it does not develop fundamentals and the right skills. Others say that AAU promotes the individual and is detrimental to team play and learning how to win as a team. In an age where more and more kids are specializing and health studies are coming out against the trend, there is pushback against playing AAU on top of the regular high school season or instead of other sports. Some people also accuse AAU programs of being exploitative, only caring about taking money from families for their kids to play and fielding as many teams as possible. But what have the players experienced?

Go to any AAU tournament and you will see great individual performances and not a whole lot of set-plays or complicated offenses. However, many of those teams spend hours upon hours trying to create team chemistry and a cohesive unit.

"It's all about improvement for us as a team," Mallory Brake, a sophomore at Hastings High School, said about her experience with North Tartan. "It's team improvement first, then individual."

Prescott sophomore Parker Nielsen said while he can understand that perception, it is not necessarily accurate.

"I can see where people get that vibe, but at the same time, we play as a team," he said. "We hang out, we do fun stuff together and we play together. I don't see that (individualism) with my team or most teams."

Another aspect is that many AAU teams are made up of players from different towns and districts, which makes organizing regular practices difficult. Combined with the sheer amount of games played and the perception can be that teams prioritize playing as many games as possible and not developing players.

Sawyer Levos, also of Hastings, said that while there are programs that are run that way, he has not experienced it.

"It might have a little bit to do with the program you're in, I could see how people would think it's just for games, but I know how my practices work,' Levos explained. "Our coach is very strict about getting stuff done, we do drills to get better at certain things and it's not just all scrimmaging. We do hard drills to get better, if we're not doing something right he'll make us run and he pushes us just as hard as (Chad) Feikema (Hastings' head basketball coach) would during the season. We do a lot of individual skill work and teamwork building to get better. Ultimately they're trying to get you better for your high school team and college basketball if that's what you want to do."

With players from all over, getting them to all get to know each other and feel comfortable playing together is a major goal and undertaking.

"Everything we do is together," upcoming East Ridge junior Courtney Brown Jr. said. "We'll take the bus down there together, eat together, stay in the same hotel, everything we do, we do together so we can build those relationships. The coach switches our room assignments every time so we can connect with everybody on the team." In an age where more kids and teens are specializing in one sport and playing it longer, there has been an equally intense push saying that they need to be multi-sport athletes (which there is ample proof of the benefits of playing multiple sports) and criticizing them for not doing so. Some have faced pushback from coaches, other students/teammates and community members.

"I've come across a couple coaches who have kind of questioned it (playing AAU instead of other high school sports)," Nielsen said. "I live in a small town and they ask why I don't play a spring sport and help our school, but it's nothing too serious I would say. I just say that those (other) sports are not really my thing. I love basketball and that's what I want to do."

"You work hard to get both places and play for both (high school and AAU teams) as much as you can," said Emma Swanson, who plays multiple sports for Ellsworth High School. "(My teammates) haven't said a whole lot, but I think they understand that I'm putting in a lot of time which will make us a better team as a whole. I think in a couple of instances there might have been a little controversy, but we're doing pretty well."

Lastly, many people just do not see AAU basketball as worth it. AAU requires a significant money investment, days or weeks of travel, the sacrifice of most of their springs and summers, not to mention the physical effort of playing that much. Many of the players agreed AAU is not for everybody, but is definitely worth all the effort.

"Outsiders look in and say that it's a demanding schedule, 'I wouldn't want to put my kid through it', wouldn't be worth it," Brake explained. "But I've had an amazing time, I love the girls I'm playing with, I've created awesome memories and have loved it. We all want to play at the next level and the time hasn't been wasted at all."

"I think that if basketball isn't something that you absolutely love to do, then AAU definitely wouldn't be for you," Levos said. "You're playing almost 40 games in the summer, plus everything else you're doing, so if it's not something you don't absolutely love, then I wouldn't recommend it to you. Because that probably would happen to you, where you just kind of get sick of it. For me that's not the case, that's my favorite thing to do, I just love to play basketball. It's super fun for me and I never really get tired of it. There are days where I wish I didn't have practice tonight, but you work through it."

Alec Hamilton

Alec Hamilton is a sports reporter and general assignment reporter at the Hastings Star Gazette. He is a journalism graduate of Drake University.

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